It’s summer in Coney Island. The boardwalk is bustling, blinking lights are ablaze as night seeps in, the fireworks on the beach begin. These are the moments you can see the outline of the park’s ghosts through the dusk light. Coney Island has a long and somewhat sordid history, but it’s the few years leading up to Prohibition that make this location pivotal to the land work I’ve been doing. The Prohibition era has always been a point of interest in popular culture. Moving pictures took interest in the antihero, the gangster as a Robin Hood in the late Twenties into Thirties. This intrigue carried on over the years in various literature, film, and TV depictions including HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and AMC’s The Making of the Mob, which starts again July 11. While Hollywood often glamourizes the era and strays from history, the land memory tells a different story. It’s within these pieces of time that we make the cut or an intersection allowing us to see glimpses of both past and future within fragmentations, these intersections providing a map to both physical workings, art, writing, and what is yet to come historically. This past year I took the opportunity to explore Al Capone’s old haunts, many of them unknowingly my own, to try to further understand the duality that continues to surround his legacy and the land memory left behind.
New York leading up to Prohibition was dirty, overcrowded, and wrought with racism and violence. If there’s one thing we have learned from history is that it repeats itself. Immigrants made little money doing odd jobs and faced daily discrimination. Often children of immigrants would join kid gangs as a form of protection and to perform common labor to help their families. Al Capone grew up on these streets – first at 95 Navy Street, then moving to 21, 38, and 46 Garfield Place as his father’s barbershop prospered. His father Gabriele played pool at 20 Garfield Place and taught his son the game. From a young age Al fit the “Robin Hood” archetype. He found out a widow’s washboard was stolen, formed a kid gang, beat up the kids that had stolen it and returned it back to the widow. He then proceeded to have a parade for himself in the streets. He helped his family financially by working as a candy store clerk at 305 5th Avenue, a pin setter at a bowling alley and at an munitions factory before meeting Johnny Torrio who ran the James Street gang and then co-lead the Five Points Gang. Johnny had an office on 671 Union St on the second floor and recruited young Al to work at Frankie Yale’s Harvard Inn. The Harvard Inn was located on Seaside Walk (Now Surf Ave) between Bowery and the beach. It was here that Capone received his infamous scars after hitting on fellow gangster Frank Galluccio’s sister Lena. Galluccio had a sit down with the bosses of New York’s underworld after the incident where Capone apologized and was ordered not to retaliate. Capone would eventually hire Galluccio as his New York bodyguard on his trips to the city.
Capone moved to Chicago in 1920 after a short stay in Baltimore. Johnny Torrio had just become the crime boss of the Chicago outfit after “Big Jim” Colosimo was murdered. Torrio offered Al and his brother positions managing two brothels. Al had gotten into some trouble in New York and needed to lay low for a while. Al moved his brother Ralph there first and then his wife, mother, son and other family members after the death of his father. He took trips back to NY to conduct business and take his son to the doctor to cure his chronic ear infections.
On his trips to NY he visited Lucky Luciano at his office located in the back of DeRobertis 176 First Avenue (sadly DeRobertis closed in 2014). He dined at his favorite New York restaurant Lanza’s 168 First Avenue located in a tenement building and opened in 1904 by Sicilian-Italian immigrant Michael Lanza. It has been rumored that he was the chef to King Victor Emmanuel III and this inspired the interior of the restaurant. With it’s tin ceilings, wall murals and stained glass, walking into Lanza’s gives the feeling of walking into another time. Edy the owner will make you feel like famiglia and you can ask him for Al’s table. Just a few short blocks away The William Barnacle Tavern opens it’s doors. Originally a speakeasy it preserved the original half bar. If you take the tour right up the stairs next door you can get the full history of the tavern and why one of the walls is hollow as well as the museum and theater. The owner Lorcan Otway has his own history with the bar and the previous owners. To get the full experience take the tour and don’t forget to duck your head as you head into the basement. Lorcan lives on site and is more than happy to share stories of both the theater and the mob that ran the streets. Lorcan also informed me that Veniero’s 342 E. 11th St. was another haunt of Capone’s. Established in 1894 it’s known for it’s incredible Italian pastries and coffee. Decorated with imported Neapolitan glass that adorns the ceiling, Veniero’s remains a staple in NYC history.
The concept of Time Travel is to encounter places and land with the embedded history experiencing multiple time frames. The experience in itself is time travel. Walking along the boardwalk you are there at one point in time, what you photograph intersects with what you are thinking at that moment, all while understanding the history and events that have taken place there. These exercises ingrain the history into your being further expanding the understanding of time, space, and people, connecting the dates and times to what you are experiencing at that moment. For instance, the candy store Capone worked at is now a laundromat. In my early twenties I took odd jobs, modeling for artists, posting fliers, getting emails for events and parties etc. The flier job lead me to this laundromat. At the time I didn’t know it had any association with Al, but I would pop in and rest my legs while chomping on candy. Somehow within my own sphere I was tapping into a certain land memory that had remained. The same for the other places above. I found myself living in Park Slope near Al’s childhood home after I went through a tough period right out of college. Friends took me in, and I’d wander those same streets. My comfort spots in the city were the same as his. While I didn’t have a physical connection to these places, something about the land and it’s history drew me in. My work began to change and rather than process it inwardly, I began to express it outwardly through image and writing. This led me down a long road where eventually I furthered my travels heading to Chicago.
Italian marble lined the walls and ceilings of the elevator lobby in the Burnham Hotel. Ornamental black metal grilles on the elevators and stairs mimic the original design of the building’s interiors, contrasting with the white of the marble while the floor mosaics honor the original artistry of the building. During the 20th century, this hotel housed various merchants and professionals, including Dr. Frank Brady. Dr. Brady kept a legitimate dental office at the hotel that just happened to also be a cover for dealings with safe blowers, drug dealers, and gangsters. Here at the hotel he would treat his patients, including the notorious gangster Al Capone, and supposedly amalgamated an acid that erased characters on stolen bonds. Dr. Brady met his untimely end in room 809 of the Burnham Hotel 1 W Washington St. This is the room I’ve requested for the next several days.
As Al rose to power in Chicago, the Robin Hood archetype followed him. He used his earnings to aid the poor as his meager beginnings had stayed with him. He bought a house at 7244 South Prairie Avenue where he and his family lived. He also had a second party home at 1600 S. Austin. It’s easy to understand why certain places were enticing to Capone. They emit elegance and class, while playing into the underground mystique. He was a man of distinguished taste in dress, location, and music, which earned him the nickname “Snorky” (meaning a sharp dresser or elegant). He may have grown up in poverty, but he never wished to be seen as uneducated or a brute. He fancied himself a champion of the people and a serviceman. He and Torrio even crafted a peace treaty between rival gangsters to reduce the violence by brokering amnesty between them. It only lasted two months, but even after the treaty’s dissolution, the Robin Hood archetype persisted. Capone established the first soup kitchens during the Great Depression when the government could not provide for the people, and set up programs for children to receive milk in schools free of charge. He is also responsible for expiration dates on milk. Some believed these actions were not pure altruism but a calculated power play. There’s a possibility of both, but in Capone’s own words, “Public service is my motto.”
2222 S. Wabash Ave in the South Loop is the former location for The Four Deuces, the crude-looking brothel where Capone got his start and began to rise to power. It is now a vacant lot. Better preserved, up the street is Gioco Italian restaurant. Located at 1312 S Wabash in an historic building from 1890, it is one of the last buildings of that era to remain. Gioco prides itself on preserving the cultural importance of the space, while incorporating this into a modern environment. During Prohibition, the back room was originally used as one of the gambling and/or brothel houses, while the building itself was a cold storage facility. The vaulted doors kept the place protected and soundproof so authorities wouldn’t be tipped off. There is a safe built into the original brick and plaster walls, and as you walk to the back of the restaurant the door opens into a secret speakeasy covered by a bookcase. The curtained off archway leads into another room with red walls covered with portraits of bygone entertainers.
Although the Lexington Hotel 2135 S. Michigan Avenue served as Capone’s headquarters and was given landmark status in 1985 it was demolished in in 1995 after repeated failed renovation attempts. The Congress Hotel 520 S Michigan Ave overlooks Grant Park and is a short walk to Lake Michigan. Rumor has it Capone played cards in the Congress Hotel near the Florentine room and enjoyed the luxury of the Gold Room. Stepping into it, you can see why. The Italian Renaissance-style room is drenched in gold leaf and sculpture with 50-foot arched ceilings and extraordinary ceiling murals. It is elegant and well-preserved. It isn’t had to imagine what kind of galas had been held there. There are other rumors of Jake Guzik calling from the Congress to Al’s home in Miami a few days before the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and just 30 minutes after the arrests had occurred on February 18th, though there is still no evidence that he was the mastermind of the massacre.
Capone was also a lover of music. He would often listen to opera—his favorite being Aida by Verdi—and could be seen attending performances, fraternizing with press, and crying during “Sonny Boy” at a showing of The Singing Fool. He enjoyed cabaret and jazz and became the man to go to if you were a jazz performer and needed a venue. He cared about the black musicians who performed in his clubs and often provided them protection in a time where racism was unchecked. Because of his childhood, he related to what they were going through. Musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Cab Calloway often played his clubs. He attended the performances at his associates’ clubs as well. Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn owned part of The Green Mill 4802 N Broadway St where a table was reserved for his boss, located on the north wall of the bar with a view of both entrances.
Upon my first visit to The Green Mill during a packed performance my friends and I wondered if we’d be able to find a seat. I told them, “Within 15 minutes a table will clear for us.” The day before we had visited Al’s grave in Mt Carmel Cemetery and it felt like magic was about to happen. However, as we waited across from the bar, there appeared to be no hope. Then suddenly, a table cleared and the bouncer walked over to me, “You look like you’re looking for a place to sit.” With that I was ushered through the crowd and given the table directly next to Capone’s (within 15 minutes).
The Green Mill has changed over the years. It used to have a ballroom on the second floor and a back garden. You can see the ballroom’s domed ceiling from the roof. Behind the bar is a trapdoor leading to where the entertainers’ dressing rooms used to be. You can still see the outlines of where the toilets and sinks were placed. A locked door leads to the tunnels that contained party rooms for gambling, girls, and drinking. If there was a raid they had men to signal a warning, and there were ways of getting to the street without being noticed. But much in the Green Mill has also remained the same. The wooden-carved frames and paintings on the walls are the original works of art—as is the statue of Ceres, the Greek Goddess of Harvest. Some believe it to be from the World’s Fair. Walking into the Green Mill, you step into another time, straight into the 1920s and 30s. It is one of Chicago’s treasures and an integral piece of its history.
Billie Holiday graced the stage, and Al Jolson, and also one of Al Capone’s favorite cabaret singers, Joe E. Lewis. Lewis sang there for $650 a week until he received a better offer—$1000 a week at the Rendezvous café—and put in his resignation. According to Dave Jemilo, the current owner of the Green Mill, McGurn threatened the singer, saying Lewis “had a lifetime contract” and he’d “take him for a ride.” Joe Lewis was a tough guy himself and ignored the threats. McGurn and his boys found Lewis at his new location and followed him to his hotel room where they cut off part of his tongue and slashed his vocal chords leaving him to die. Capone found out and visited Lewis, giving him $10,000 to aid his recovery. Because of Capone’s generosity, Lewis was able to make enough of a recovery to start a new career as a comedian in Vegas.
Dave Jemilo’s interest in the Green Mill came from family history. His father told him stories of his youth in the 1930s, picking up women at age 18 at the Aragon Ballroom and having a night cap at the Green Mill afterward. Jemilo bought the place from Steve Brend, a WWII vet who had worked there since 1938 and bought it in 1960. Brend was a busboy when he first met “Machine Gun” McGurn, and it was Brend who originally told Jemilo the story of the Lewis affair and Capone’s involvement, which was later confirmed by a historian.
The next stop on this trip was to aid a sweet tooth. Capone was known to frequent Margie’s Candies, located at 1960 N Western . Margie’s was established in 1921 as Security Candies. The same furnishings it opened with are the ones you will see today—the golden upholstered booths and original cases filled with heart shaped boxes of Margie’s famous original recipe chocolates. Capone’s booth was the second from the entrance facing the door. Boxes of candy line the windows and counters, meticulously papered gold containers strewn among lace-rimmed velvet hearts. At each booth, there is a tiny jukebox. Margie’s still uses the original equipment—all pots and stirrers have been kept in perfect condition. Margie’s grandson, Peter, runs the shop now and has been teaching his grandson the fine art of candy making through his Grandmother’s recipes.
To visit each and every haunt would take months, so I limited myself to places that still exist – glimpses of past through a present day veil. Back in room 809 at the Burnham Hotel, I collected my thoughts on who Capone was as a person. While I visited many places on this journey, the ones I’ve mentioned stood out as providing pieces of his character. So what can we learn about a person by studying the places they frequented? Capone was a man who was keenly aware of his surroundings as well as his upbringing. He was uncomfortable being labeled a brute and consistently supported the arts and literature. He was an excellent businessman and entrepreneur. He thought of himself as a man of service to the public. He was a family man, who gave business to family-run restaurants. Capone was loyal to those who were loyal to him, patronizing their bars and establishments, frequenting shows of the musicians he loved, and protecting those in need. He had no tolerance for those who were disloyal. It seems his genuine wish to help the people was at war with his own ego. While I’m not here to sugarcoat the brutality of the mob within it’s own structure, I am attempting to understand a person more fully. To take a look at another side of someone who was labeled a criminal and villain. People are multi-dimensional, dynamic, and multi-faceted. The complexity of man is a shaky subject, especially in figures such as Al Capone, whose duality is so polarized. I wonder how this could be incorporated into my own art and seek techniques to help others in their own development. How understanding legends in history, even and perhaps especially controversial ones, is an integral part of the process. To look at what is hidden behind the veil and not the veil itself. Art in all forms becomes the historical link between past, present, and future, giving a broader image of what we have endured and what we will become. It is both legend and the mystique behind it. How we shape ourselves as human beings, as well as the world around us.
For more information:
Al Capone’s great grandniece Deirdre Marie Capone’s site: www.unclealcapone.com/
My Al Capone Museum run by Mario Gomes: http://www.myalcaponemuseum.com